Water for oil: necessity is the mother of invention

Part of Business as usual + The next economy

From Reuters: a shale oil producer, confronting a Texas drought, will soon be getting its water from the City of Odessa’s sewage treatment plant(s), under an 11-year contract. The (American) National Oil Shale Association reports that shale extraction uses 3 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. Presumably, this arrangement offsets the industrial use of water that people might otherwise want to drink.

This is a nice example of economic and institutional adaptation to a changing ecology. It’s a private/public initiative, and it sounds like a win all around, at least in its broad strokes. This kind of thing must be happening in a lot of places now. Local, not global change.

Top shale oil producer Pioneer Natural Resources Co (PXD.N) has found an unusual way to both save water and cut costs for its wells: tapping the treated runoff from toilets, sinks and showers in west Texas.

Pioneer has signed an 11-year, $117 million deal with the city of Odessa, Texas that will guarantee it access to millions of gallons of treated municipal wastewater each day, for use in nearby oilfields. Deliveries of the so-called effluent, are expected to start at the end of the year.


America is on a tear

Part of The next economy

So, President Obama has unveiled his action plan on climate change. The Clean Power Plan is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by shifting America’s electrical generating capacity from coal to renewables (solar and wind). This is to be accomplished through EPA regulation of emissions.

Unsurprisingly, this is invoking horrified responses. What I notice, with interest: under the auspices of a group called Ceres, the plan has also attracted support from no less than 365 businesses, who have written to the National Governors’ Association urging support for the plan:

A lot of the names on the list look like pretty small potatoes, but there are quite a few substantive and familiar names.


Comet lander wakes up

Part of Amazing science + Clever machines all around us

Philae Lander image from Wikipedia

So, the Rosetta space probe’s comet lander Philae has woken up. The lander has been hibernating and incommunicado since late in 2014, when it landed in shade, with not enough sun to recharge its batteries. The lander–presumably now getting some sun–resumed transmission a couple of days ago, and began sending data, including stuff it had stored while out of touch.

Read about it at NASA Spaceflight, or on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta site.

This must be a thrill for the people who sent the probe, who’ve been waiting for months to see if it would resume operations. They must be over the moon.


Riding a comet

Part of Amazing science + The present moment

Here’s a thing that’s happening this week in the solar system: a European space probe named Rosetta, launched a decade ago, is about to land on a comet.


If the maneuver is successful (and we should know by Wednesday morning) it will take samples and perform chemical analyses of what it finds there.

I have only the most cursory understanding of the scientific significance of such a mission, but (for example) one story I’ve heard many times: that (just perhaps) the basic organic molecular building blocks of life itself may have originated first in comets. Or not, who knows?

Here’s a link (for now at least) to a live feed of the event:,2817,2471982,00.asp

The story continues to unfold.

The lander part of the probe, named Philae, touched down successfully and securely on the comet, which I have to think was a nice moment for those who designed, built, launched and guided it. Unfortunately, Philae came down in the shade, and isn’t getting enough sun (from hundreds of millions of miles away, after all) to recharge its batteries. Apparently it got as far as detecting organic molecules, and then shut down. There’s hope (I hope) that as the comet gets closer to the sun, the lander might just wake up again. That would be great.

Space, the final frontier. There is some dismay about our lack of progress in space, given that except for Apollo (in the astonishing sixties), humans have never made it out of Low Earth Orbit. The money, it seems, just isn’t there, and NASA has fallen on lean times compared to its heyday. As we’ve always known, people add a great deal to the cost of spaceflight. However, we seem to be doing pretty well with robots these days, and of course the robots are getting smarter all the time. The important thing is to keep going.

There’s a Rosetta mission blog out of the European Space Agency, so maybe that’s a place to keep track of what comes next.


Another boiling frog

Part of Matters unravelling + The present moment

There’s a story out now that the city of São Paolo, with a population of roughly 20 million people, is currently suffering its worst drought in 80 years, and is on the verge of running out of water:

In the context, I don’t understand what “running out of water” means. I wouldn’t think it would be a purely binary state, but rather a matter of degrees. However, it sounds dire nonetheless.

It seems the problem (some say) is connected with deforestation of the surrounding rainforest, and its effect on the region’s hydrogeology. Take away the trees, and reservoirs don’t get recharged.

What’s noteworthy about this, to my mind, is that the immediate crisis has almost certainly been building over decades, and might have been foreseeable, but there’s been no corresponding development of any political will to do anything about it (so one can infer from the current situation). Humans are bad at long range planning; and yet we’re beset by long range problems.

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